January 25, 2006
Under the Radar
I keep waiting to write about the Andy Marte/Coco Crisp trade, but it's slower coming to a resolution than a plot on Sophia's soap opera. (My god, how do you write characters that stupid? It's like the winter meetings and the U.N. had many, many babies.)
With all the attention focused on this latest trade, however, I got to thinking about the moves that slipped under the radar this offseason. It was a winter of bold strokes, from the Blue Jays' massive expenditures to the White Sox' refusal to stand pat in the wake of a title. The slack period we've been in since the holidays may have caused us to forget what an active offseason it's been, with the last two months of '05 just chock full of player movement.
With so many major transactions, it would be natural for lesser moves to not get their due. The following are the pickups who haven't gotten much attention, but who I think could have a fair amount of impact on their new teams in 2006.
Mark Sweeney signed a two-year deal with the Giants, making him a key part of their youth movement. (That sounds like a joke, but the 36-year-old Sweeney is just the sixth-oldest of the team's 14 projected position players, and the youngest player they acquired this past offseason.) A career .262/.356/.404 hitter, Sweeney has been much better than that the last two years, a lefty bat with power and patience (.281/.387/.485 in 398 AB, with 17 homers and 72 walks) who forced his way into semi-regular status with the Padres last year. He's a much better hitter than nominal starting first baseman Lance Niekro, and should once again hit his way into a job by the trade deadline.
Jae Seo went from the Mets to the Dodgers as part of a four-pitcher deal in which the Mets picked up a couple of nondescript relievers. Seo probably should have spent the entire season in the Mets' rotation, but wasted three months at Norfolk while the team messed around with Kazuhisa Ishii. Seo posted a 2.90 ERA in 14 starts, with nearly a 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, numbers more in line with his solid '03 than his disastrous '04. He's no star, but a capable mid-rotation starter who should make 32 starts and keep his ERA in the 3.00s, especially in Shea West. The Dodgers would have missed Jeff Weaver more if not for this pickup.
Kris Benson was also a Mets' dumpee, sent to the Orioles in exchange for Jorge Julio and John Maine. Benson's three-year, $22.5-million contract kicked off a 16-month rush of silly deals for pitchers long on potential and short on production. Standing on the other side of that rush, having Benson--a league-average pitcher with some durability issues--for two years and $15 million doesn't seem like such a bad idea. Like the Dodgers with Seo, the Orioles didn't give up anything of note in exchange for a pitcher who is a good bet for 180 league-average innings, perhaps more if he can shake the nagging injuries.
The Mets are going to be right there with the Braves and Phillies in the NL East this season, but if at any point they're scrambling for starting pitching, it will be hard to ignore the fact that they gave away 60-odd league-average starts in these two deals.
The Orioles also added Corey Patterson, essentially for free, from the Cubs. Not to get too mainstream here, but if you're ever going to use the "he needed a change of scenery" argument for a player, you'd use it with Patterson, who was broken by the end of last year. He has flaws, especially at the plate, where he's never going to be a true leadoff man because he's not wired to work counts. If you set that aside, though, and look at him for what he is--a true center fielder with very good left-handed power and some speed--you can see a player who will be worth five wins on the cheap right now, and with a chance for more upside than that as he goes through his peak.
At the very least, I expect the Orioles to get a short-term bounce here, a kind of performance like Oddibe McDowell had in 1988 for the Braves. For a team that has struggled to find a center fielder and needs lefty pop, it's an excellent pickup.
The Brewers have a crowded corner situation and no DH slot available, which are the nominal reasons why they traded away Lyle Overbay. One of the guys they picked up in the deal, Gabe Gross, might be as good a hitter as Overbay, albeit without Overbay's defensive value. Gross' major-league line of .226/.316/.326 makes that seem silly, but he's hit well in the high minors, including a .297/.380/.438 line at Syracuse last year. The Jays never gave him a clean shot at a job, and the Brewers--with contract commitments to perceived stars Carlos Lee and Geoff Jenkins--aren't going to have much space for him, either. Should either player miss time, though, Gross has the skill set to step in and provide comparable value, and maybe even out-hit the veterans. For a team that is going to have OBP issues at three to five lineup spots, Gross could be an important piece of any run in a weak NL Central.
Also part of the Overbay package, David Bush suffered from being mishandled by the Jays last season. He doesn't have much upside, but can provide bulk innings at the back end of the rotation, and is already a league-average pitcher. Given that Overbay is 29 and hasn't shown himself to be an impact hitter, I think it's fair to say that the Brewers may end up winning this trade outright.